Sunday, October 18, 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Did You See The Gorilla?

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45 or 10:42-45
Picture: cc mrflip

Sisters and brothers, recently someone told me about an experiment he’d been involved in on campus a while ago. Apparently it’s quite a famous experiment. Some of you may have heard or even participated in it. A group of maybe 100 or more people was asked to watch a short video clip in which several other people, some wearing white and others wearing black, were passing basketballs to one another. The watchers were asked to count the number of times the ball was passed between the people in white. After the clip had been screened, various answers were given. Then, to the surprise of most of the test subjects, they were asked how many of them had seen the gorilla. Gorilla? What gorilla? Only two people raised their hands. The video was screened again. And, sure enough, in the middle of it, someone in a black gorilla suit walked right through the group of ball players. In fact, the gorilla had taken center stage, and yet most of the subjects hadn’t seen it. They’d been so focused on the ball that they’d missed the gorilla.

It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in our gospel today? To recognize the similarity we need to situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. We need to see, for example, that up until this moment, Jesus and his disciples have been moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along their journey, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem. In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion and Death. For the third time, Jesus tells his closest companions: Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise(10:33f.). And what we heard just now is the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, yet again, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond with: Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left. Not only that, we are also told that, when the (other) ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. And they were upset not because the Zebedee brothers had been insensitive, but rather because they had been trying to get ahead of the rest of them.

In other words, even though, all along their journey towards Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the test subjects who missed the gorilla even though it walked by right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in what had been going on in the background. They were concentrating on the glorious acclaim that Jesus had garnered from the crowds in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was yet to come. Obsessed with their image of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own desires, they missed their chance to do what friends might be expected to do in similar situations – if not to console, then at least to try to empathize with the one who is suffering. It is not surprising then that when Jesus’ predictions eventually came to pass, when he was finally arrested in Gethsemane, they all left him and fled (14:50). They ran away because they hadn’t yet understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them. Focused as they were only on the passing to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Cross.

And perhaps this tendency of the first disciples is something that we are also particularly prone to in this modern age. As you may have heard, some people speak of ours as a feel-good generation, living in an increasingly therapeutic society. Many of us tend to assume – and I might include myself here too – that to be healthy and happy, an individual has to be free from all negative emotions and experiences. So that if we aren’t feeling good about ourselves at any given moment, if the struggles of life trouble us to any degree, then there must be something wrong with us. We need therapy, or counseling, or healing. We need help to take the pain away… And perhaps we do. But this obsession with our own individual well-being often leads us to fail to consider what others might be going through. So caught up are we in our own pressing concerns that we have no room to empathize with the pain of others, even those closest to us, let alone those who are far away. Like the first disciples and the subjects in the experiment, we concentrate so much on the ball that we fail to notice the gorilla.

And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment – a difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real relation to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate connection between passing into glory and the endurance of suffering. In the second reading, we are reminded that Christ identified himself so closely with us that in him we no longer have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. And the first reading tells us that it is by thus undergoing affliction for our sake that the suffering servant came to see the light in fullness of days. Also, not only does Christ’s passing into glory depend on his endurance of suffering, but his passing of glory on to us also depends upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Christian, the way to true happiness has to pass through the other, especially the other who suffers.

Or, in the words of that song popularized in the sixties by Jefferson Airplane, when the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough, particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus solely on our own needs – perhaps during a time of budget cuts, for example – we need to find somebody to love. And, happily, our celebration of World Mission Sunday today offers us an opportunity to express that love in concrete monetary terms. But World Mission Sunday comes only once a year, one day out of three hundred and sixty five. What about the rest of the time?

Sisters and brothers, when we leave this place to live out the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, how many of us will see the gorilla? How many of us will find somebody to love?


  1. I found myself at breakfast this morning with a group of Canadian Prison Chaplains. One gentleman asked me about the Singapore recession recovery (as part of our breakfast small talk..) which got me sharing...

    Yes, though the local eceonomy seems to be recovering (whether V or W recovery),I often wonder how relevant statistics are to the real man on the street who is suffering unemployment and financial hardship.

    Even closer to my heart is the wiping out of the padi crop of my Filipino helper's farm, and the hunger her family will be facing this coming year.

    Indeed, the call to remember the plight of our neighbour(s), and the call to love somebody instead of bemoaning our long term economic woes alone, could not come at a more relevant time.

    As my breakfast companions shared, HOPE is indeed needed at every encounter of the daily human plight we choose to face, by virtue of our choosing to serve others as Christ did, even to walking the Way of the Cross with them.

    On this blessed road of shared pain, Christ walks with us and lights up the next step for us to take in the darkness.

  2. Fr Chris, I see the Gorilla almost everyday nowadays. Please pray for my mother for she has been seriously ill and still is. And it's unlikely that she'll ever recover.

  3. Is the gorilla the reminder that amidst all the hustle and bustle of just doing, and doing, whether it be one's secular job, volunteer activity or even church related ministries, we often miss seeing what is truly important by not being 100% present at any one time.

    By being PRESENT to myself, I am connected to my central core and can be in communion with God. When I am thus, I can be present to those who are immediately around me and can be truly aware, sensitive and responsive to their needs, joys and pain. In this state I am then able to become present to the calls of my greater community of fellow humans to truly respond with Compassion and Understanding.

    Being PRESENT, gives me HOPE and optimism for the future. A future that I cannot predict or engineer, on a journey that only requires me to be present to myself, to God, to Family and to Community, in the NOW.

  4. A note to Anon 2..praying for your mother...

    "Peace be with you" and your struggling family. Continue to speak words of love and comfort (directly, through prayer and music) to encourage your mother's spirits.
    She is in God's loving care and healing, and so are you..



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